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Winter’s busy for beekeepers

Honey-makers slow down in cold but still need care

Even dormant bees need food and warmth to survive the chill of winter.

Beekeepers dutifully tend to their hives through the winter with these priorities in mind. There are mixed approaches to addressing concerns about bee warmth in unpredictable cold weather. However, all seem to agree that keeping them fed through the winter is critical for survival.

Beekeepers Jim and Jenine Miller, who operate Millers Homestead near Cheney, begin their preparations in October.

Jim Miller lifts his beehive boxes and weighs them to determine how much honey the bees have to sustain themselves. He continues this routine through the winter.

“If they are light on weight, I start adding food to them, sugar and protein patties. They need protein just like you and I do,” he said.

“The patties are made of Drivert sugar (a very fine baker’s sugar), honey, and a bee pollen substitute,” Jenine Miller said.

The Millers agree that if their bees have food, they’ll do just fine. Last year, they lost one hive coming through the winter because they didn’t put in an extra protein patty.

When it’s cold, the bees don’t move around as well, which means they may miss food in some places in the hive. When the bees are cold, Jenine Miller said, “They form a football-shaped cluster. They flutter their wings to generate warmth, around the queen. If the box warms up, they can break their cluster in the hive and move better. If it’s really, really cold and they break their cluster, they’ll die.”

For general winter precautions, beekeepers use a variety of approaches, including hive wind breaks, heat, or wrapping the hives in insulation. The Millers spoke of one well-intentioned beekeeper who put insulation heat tape on hives. This caused the bees to think it was warm outside; they flew out of the hive into the cold and died.

The Inland Empire Beekeeping Association encourages the precaution of checking for proper ventilation in heavy snow, as moisture is one of the big killers of hives in the winter, according to its January newsletter.

On mild weather days, Jim Miller expects that the queen bee will lay eggs.

“The temperatures tell them it is time to grow their brood in preparation for spring,” he said. “She lays as many eggs as she thinks the hive can handle. They need the cold weather to complete their cycle, to slow down and rebuild.”

The Millers, who sell beekeeping supplies, bottling containers and gift items in addition to honey, continue to have winter chores, from melting and cleaning wax for lip balm to selling bee products online. Jim Miller teaches bee classes through the Community Colleges of Spokane, ranging from basic beekeeping to swarming to honey grading. Though the bees are not very active in the winter, their owners seem to be.